From Body Image to Body Language
Take a second to think about your body—you know, that mass of matter that distinguishes your physical self from the rest of the world… When you think about your body how do you feel? Proud? Disappointed? Grateful? Hostile?
Do you love your body?
I’m going to go way out on a limb and guess no. Most of us, at best, have made an uneasy truce with our bodies. We try to take care of them, but feel they continually betray us.
While no one is immune from this issue, it tends to be a bigger problem for women. I recently spoke with a fellow parent who was anxious about his daughter’s weight and dietary habits. “I haven’t even broached the subject,” he said, “because I know what a sensitive topic it is. Women and food! Women are crazy when it comes to food!”
“It’s not that women have more problems with food,” I said. “Both men and women use food as a distraction, an escape, or a way of ‘nourishing’ themselves when their needs aren’t met. It’s probably our #1 drug of choice in this country. There are plenty of overweight men out there, too. But women learn from a young age to tie their self-worth and identity to how they look. So in addition to the food issue, there’s a body image issue—and when those two collide, you get eating disorders.”
Women feel pressure to measure up to a specific ideal body stereotype. That can wreak havoc on both their physical and mental health. AND… it impedes their ability to communicate.
You use your BODY to communicate. The whole thing, from the top of your head to your little toe (for real—the direction of your feet can tell someone a lot!). How you feel about your body affects your nonverbal communication. If you can’t accept your body how it is, that shows up. If you feel contemptuous of it, that hampers your ability to use it powerfully. If you worry it’s not good enough, you don’t want to expose yourself, which leads to missed opportunities. I’ve known women—capable, talented, intelligent women—who were reluctant to give presentations because they were ashamed of their weight or body shape.
Specifically, I’ve seen two ways in which body shame has hindered my clients’ communication.
1. Curling Inward.
Anyone who is lacking in confidence will try to make themselves small to avoid attention. Both men and women will curl their shoulders inward and drop their heads when they don’t feel powerful. But some women have an additional motive for this: breasts. It’s a physical difference that marks us as distinctive from half the population, and many women subconsciously try to accomplish breast reduction without the surgery through their posture.
There are numerous reasons for this: They may resent being a woman. They may believe they need to look “manly” to get ahead in a man’s world. They may have been taught in church that it’s their job to keep men from lusting after them. They may have been sexually abused in the past and are trying to avoid unwanted attention. But not only is scrunching up terrible for your neck and upper back, it inhibits your ability to communicate.
I’m going to assume if you’re reading this that you are a full-grown adult. You have a great deal of control over your life and your body. If you find yourself curling in, let go of your fear and your shame. Stand up straight and tall. Open up your shoulders and chest. Be comfortable in your body. It conveys confidence and competence. And you’ll get fewer headaches.
2. Shallow Breathing.
Shallow breathing is a universal problem, one both men and women suffer from, in our frenetic, overstimulated world. But here’s the problem with taking a deep breath that actually uses your diaphragm: you look fat. Your lower abdomen protrudes on the inhale.
We’d rather suck in our stomachs and look thin than be able to breathe! That’s what happens when your identity and self-worth are tied up in your body shape: You choose looking good over thinking clearly, staying calm, and communicating confidence. We’re still wearing corsets. Invisible ones.
Breathe! Breathe deeply. Let your whole abdomen expand with that healing, cleansing, empowering breath. Do it again. And again. And again.
Come to terms with your body. How you think about yourself gets communicated. Aren’t you more than the sum of your body parts? Accept, nourish, and love your body. Treat it with respect. When you respect your body, your confidence increases and that gets communicated nonverbally.